Sky Sports' Johnny Phillips: Helder hoping there’s no more playing catch-up
When Wolves secured The Championship trophy in style on that sun-baked afternoon up at Bolton last spring, there was a wonderful moment in the second half when Helder Costa wriggled out of a tight spot on the right touchline, beat his man, cut inside at pace and then stabbed a slide-rule pass through to Diogo Jota, who dinked it over the advancing keeper for Wolves’ third goal.
It was a move that summed up the class and style of Nuno Espirito Santo’s side. But for the creator it was a rare highlight in a frustrating season. Costa started only 21 league matches in a campaign that began with him sidelined due to an ankle injury. With Dioga Jota’s place never in doubt, it was Ivan Cavaleiro who appeared to be winning the battle for the remaining wide-attacking berth.
Questions had been asked of Costa’s consistency and ability to fulfil the role being asked of him. The Bolton match was his best of the season, but even in victory there had been some sloppy moments that caused exasperation on the touchline that afternoon. He had picked up a habit of losing possession once too often. As the club have shown with Barry Douglas, they are unafraid to move players on, and Costa’s name might not have been high up on a retained list at the end of last season.
But the former record signing has undergone something of a transformation to nail down a spot in the starting line-up for all six Premier League games so far this season. He returned from the summer recess looking sharper and fitter than ever. Against Manchester United last Saturday he was Wolves’ most effective player, giving United’s full-back Luke Shaw a troublesome afternoon and he played a key part in Joao Moutinho’s equaliser.
This week, Costa took a few minutes out of his schedule to sit down at Compton Park to reflect on the progress he has made, in an interview to be shown on Sky’s Soccer Saturday programme this afternoon.
“I was a bit sad, especially with my injury, but I’m glad that the club trusted in me,” he acknowledged. “And also the players in my position were playing really well so it was hard for me. I knew that I just had to concentrate on myself and work hard. Luckily that worked out and now I’m here in the team.”
So was there a specific fitness programme he adhered to?
“Every player receives an individual plan of what they have to do and how they have to approach their training”, he added. “Basically that was it, I was given a plan and I followed it. Not just myself, all my team-mates were working as hard as we could over the summer. I’ve noticed in the past that the people who don’t work, or who arrive late, they spend the rest of their time catching up and I didn’t want that to happen to me.
“Last season it was difficult for me. I only played half the games and it was difficult for me to stay fit, so now this season it is a different ball game.”
On the club’s summer tour to Switzerland – his first available full pre-season during his time at Wolves – there were signs of the upper body strengthening done by a player who could previously be muscled off the ball on occasions. Costa is thankful for the coaching support team that Nuno has built around him at the club. Fitness coach Antonio Dias and rehabilitation coach Joao Lapa worked extensively with the players this summer, supported by first team analyst Tom Male, who ensures a highly-specific stream of data is available for each player.
“In my opinion they are just as important as the main head coach”, Costa continued. “The work that we do in the gym, they are constantly analysing us and helping us. With the statistics of the players, you can see what they are doing is working.”
Costa also pointed out the care the coaches took regarding the mental side of his fitness during his spells out of the team, with first team coach Julio Figueroa offering wise counsel.
“I was working really hard and Julio was helping me with that side of it. I remember last season I was very frustrated, everyone was helping me to get through that. Now that I have managed to strengthen myself mentally, it is not a problem any more.”
A settled life helps any footballer. Costa’s first season at the club was disrupted by the managerial changes that took away any sense of continuity. Despite that he swept the board with the awards at the 2016/17 End of Season Dinner, with his goals away at Queens Park Rangers and at home to Cardiff City particular highlights. When Wolves finally settled on their man in the dugout for the following season, the player himself was injured for the opening weeks.
This season he is reaping the rewards from his summer’s work. A regular place in the starting line-up has given him the confidence and belief he needed to push on. And, although it is far removed from the glamour of his previous clubs like Benfica and Monaco, he is enjoying the camaraderie that has been created at Wolves.
“Yes, it does feel like it is a home really,” he explained. “Not just because of the Portuguese people, it’s also because of how the English people have received me and welcomed me and that’s really important to be able to feel that. Whether it’s just from being in the canteen or seeing the doctors, that all helps you feel part of the team and feel welcomed.”
The sight of a fit and firing Helder Costa at Old Trafford will have given fans every reason to believe there is more to come from a player who surely has his best years ahead of him.